Stacking shelves won’t help career progression

Stephen Isaac-Wilson

111509140 300x203 Stacking shelves wont help career progressionOver the last week, we have seen a series of dodgy manoeuvres by the government regarding unpaid retail work experience. All actions that have left me like many others, seriously questioning firstly, their ethics and secondly, how far they are removed from reality.

Due to the severe backlash by protesters, Tesco have now agreed to pay all their ‘work experience’ employees on the governments Back to Work scheme; I still have qualms though. Many other retailers have also pulled out of the scheme including Superdrug, Sainsbury’s, Waterstones and TK Maxx.  However, what is shocking is that these decisions didn’t come via a government epiphany that realised not all work experience is valuable, but rather PR damage control from retail giants.

Unemployment in the UK now stands at 2.67 million with youth employment at 1.04 million. Undoubtedly there is a problem.  However, getting young people, who Nick Clegg believes are ‘sitting at home’, to stack shelves for free is going to do absolutely nothing for their morale and career progression. Working for free in retail is simply not the same as obtaining a placement in parliament, the media or finance. Having worked both in the media and retail, I can confirm that the two industries are poles apart.  Due to the nature of retail, I was able to get a part time job whilst still in sixth form.  Within weeks, I knew how to do everything my job entailed including using the tills, replenishing stock and tidying the shop floor. As harsh as it sounds, these jobs are called unskilled for a reason. Unlike jobs in parliament, the media or finance, the initial training period is very short; you are expected to quickly be on par with other weathered staff who know the shop inside out. That said, does the Tesco’s scheme really need to be a 4 weeks stint?

Whilst working in retail, personally I was spoken to like scum by both the staff and customers. I was treated incredibly badly by my manager and this was also the case for many of my young/student colleagues. The tasks expected of me were usually incredibly monotonous (size ordering the stockroom/spacing hangers on the shop floor). As a result the low pay and bad treatment wasn’t enough to keep a large number of my colleagues; the turnover rate was practically that of a revolving door. I soon realised I was the longest standing employee (except management) after just four months. For the hard working unemployed graduate and even non-graduate with alternative career ambitions, the scheme could ultimately be demoralising, thus defeating the point.

By no means do I stand here as an advocate of media, political or finance work experience which are only really taken advantage of by the middle classes (I believe Chris Grayling Smiths calls us job snobs), however, the government’s attempt to convince people that these retail placements are worthwhile is ludicrous. We get equally annoyed when interns are only paid expenses to fill actual posts in professional industries, (Nick Clegg has in the past spoken out against the social damages of unpaid internships), so why is this any different?

These schemes will be aimed at some, but not others.  Would any cabinet members advise their children to work for only JSA in retail? I’m speculating, but I think not. I also don’t think their children are waiting to be discovered on X Factor, making Ian Duncan Smith’s point in the Daily Mail about the nature of the unemployed youth rather bizarre. As the majority of the cabinet would have never worked in retail, they have no concept of what working there for free would ask of someone. Like all government policies, they receive more credibility if the people who initiate them have at some stage implemented them.

The ultimate purpose of doing a work placement is to increase skills, and hopefully end up in employment.  Iain Duncan Smith mentioned in his article that 300 individuals from a total of 1400 on the Tesco ‘work experience’ were now in employment. This is not an overwhelming success.  As I stated before, retail work is unskilled making the nature of the work experience in no way beneficial to some recipients. Retail trainee management programme? Yes. Unskilled, ‘workware’/slave labour work placement? No.

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  • disgustedoftunbridgewells

    Well maybe.

    I commented against Christina Patterson’s rather silly article on this issue, but I’m not sure this doesn’t go a little too far in the opposite direction.

    300 people out of 1400 got permanent jobs with Tesco (and arguably others may have been assisted in getting jobs with other employers). As someone who has experienced the demoralising effect of what was for me a long period of unemployment, I’m not sure I would reject out of hand something that gave me at least a 1-in-5 chance of getting a job. (Although given that Tesco are also gaining from the arrangement in being able to screen potential employees, yes they should be paying them).

    The article linked to also says that:

    ‘The fact is that 13 weeks after starting their placements, around 50 per cent of those taking part have either taken up permanent posts or have stopped claiming benefits’.

    I don’t know how those figures break down, how many find jobs, how many go into some form of training or education and how many simply disappear from the register. The figures don’t suggest that it has been a resounding success – but in this area there aren’t any quick-fix solutions, so you certainly can’t write it off as a failure either. 

  • Jack Hughes


    1stly I see no point in posting under a Psudonym, for all I know you are David Cameron.

    2ndly there is no need to be patronising 

  • The Linoleum Surfer

    As an employer, I would say that even the most “unskilled” of jobs has more merit than no job at all: I would rather meet someone who has worked in a supermarket, as a labourer, a cleaner, security guard or toll booth operator while looking for a “suitable” job, than someone who has made a full-time position out of “not found what I’m looking for yet”.

    Is it that hard to understand?  When an employer asks you what you’ve done since you left school or university, isn’t it clear that “worked at Tesco while I looked for a position in my field” sounds much better than “nothing”?

    On a related issue, I would support someone receiving benefits while working unpaid for a registered charity too.  It has the same merit, perhaps more in terms of skills acquired, or skills transferred successfully from college theory to useful practice.  I don’t believe there would be any need to place a time limit either: it’s hard to imagine that anyone would rather stay on benefits while working than advance to a better-paying salaried position.

    If there is any pattern of depression, de-motivation and resignation to failure, then it is among the long-term unemployed.  Stacking shelves might be boring, but it’s a lot less soul-destroying then watching Jeremy Kyle and wishing you’d taken out payment protection insurance, had an accident at work worth claiming for, or at least had a few extra bob for online bingo.

    A friend of mine had to move after a marriage break-up, and get a new job quickly to support three children.  With two undergraduate degrees, a masters, post-graduate professional qualifications and more, it might have been tempting to sign on while filling out the job applications.  Instead, she worked for three months in an out of town shopping centre until the “real” job came through.  I don’t think that’s because she enjoyed selling ready-meals or socks, or thought she looked good in uniformed polyester. 

    I think it’s because there is a link between a preference for work over dependency – any work – and personal self-respect.  You might feel it demeaning to do a boring, repetitive job with little chance of advancement.  You might feel it’s OK to consider than only some kind of sub-species should ever have to do such work in order to make a living.  But for me, when I look at someone’s CV and see the Co-op or McDonalds, I don’t see someone who has compromised their self-respect.  I see someone who has held on to it, someone who has preferred to stand on their own two feet at any cost.  And that, sir, is the person I want working next to me.

  • The Linoleum Surfer

    Fifty per cent more than might otherwise have found something to do?  In three months?  If only those number could be applied to all long-term unemployed.  I simply don’t see a down side to this.

  • doctormo

    Training people is expensive; but just look at your comment again. It’s all about how expensive it is for you (not the investment from the person), how much you have to re-do work (not how hard it is to do something new).

    Well of course you’re going to have to re-do the work, you should plan for that, of course it’s going to be expensive, that’s why it’s called training. And I know a lot of people can be useless, but with attitude like that from companies, why are we surprised people don’t respect their training? Treating people with dignity seems to have been forgotten, I’m not expecting you to respect these people without them proving themselves, but I see a lot of undeserved contempt and a complete lack of regard for building good relationships with trainees.

  • LordJustin

    And I see that you have quite deliberately missed the point of my comment, which is summed up in the last sentence: “My firm can no longer afford trainees.”

    This is not due to “undeserved contempt” for trainees. It is because it is now far too expensive (due to the wages they expect to be paid, bureaucratic employment laws and the crushing burden of national and local taxes) for a small business to take on the overhead of unproductive staff.

    Overhead kills business. But I would not expect a socialist to appreciate this after 13 years of Labour teaching that money grows on trees.

  • doctormo

    I appreciate your business can not grow, I don’t expect you to do the economic impossible but I think you put your business at a disadvantage. You must understand that green staff are expected to be unproductive, part of a good business’s auxiliary process is to be good trainers and make that time as short as possible.

    People are not born with skills specific for business, nor are they schooled on a specific processes. Capitalists support the notion that public schools not be used to subsidise business expenses. And yet, many business men really do think they ort to.

    “on account of the high level of leaf availability, which means that, I
    gather, the current going rate has something like three deciduous
    forests buying one ship’s peanut.”

    As for the label there, although I object to Labour being left wing, their last government was more right than left. Me, call me what you like.

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